Preface to L'Indifférent by Philip Kolb

A Story Lost and Found

   The unbelievable, in Proust's world, can become believable. The writer has brilliantly demonstrated this paradox in his telling of the almost unbelievable story of Swann In Love, the love affair of a society gentleman who falls in love with a coquette, eventually marrying her when he no longer loves her, a short story which, in spite of everything, seems true. One could say the same about the real life of the author: as Proust's life is gradually revealed to us through his correspondence, it produces plenty of surprises. For may years the public assumed that this valetudinarian spent his youth in the same idle way that his heroes lived, Swann or the narrator. Then we learned that he had studied hard, that he obtained two degrees, one in law, the other in philosophy. We were surprised once again, at the time of the publication of Jean Santeuil, that at the moment when he was about to publish his first book he was embarking on a sort of novel which was going to occupy him for four long years. The manuscript of this novel as he left it comprised more than fifteen hundred pages. But he had to write A la recherche du temps perdu, which he was working on until his death, and more than thirty years to pass, before posterity began to see more clearly through the mists which had grown around his legend.

   Today we can see this author a little better, we are beginning to understand him. Thanks to the five thick volumes of his work which we are indebted to MM Ferré, Clarac and Sandre for in the Pléiade edition, thanks to George Painter's biography, thanks to over twenty volumes of his correspondence, we could be given the impression that we have almost everything we could need to understand the work and its author. The sources of unpublished material have dried up it would seem: we don't expect anything more than the variations, fragments and rough drafts which a tireless team of researchers have assembled in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

   But no, we are wrong once again. There are still surprises waiting for us. Of course there are still many letters which are as yet unpublished, of which a certain number have great beauty and considerable interest. They will come in their own time. But that is not what concerns us here.

   There is something else. Something which seems totally unbelievable, to rediscover a text after so many years which is not exactly unpublished, as it had been published eighty years ago in a short-lived review, but a text which has remained buried in oblivion to the extent of being totally unknown today. I am talking about a short story which has remained, up until now, not only unknown to the public but equally unknown to the experts, which is not mentioned in any bibliography, and of which not even the title was known.

   However there was one trace. Those who have read the Lettres à Reynaldo Hahn, if they have a very good memory, may remember some allusions to a lost short story. In one of these letters Proust talks about a short story which he has just removed from his book Les Plaisirs et les Jours. He discloses to his friend his intention to substitute another story in its place which he is in the process of writing. These are the terms in which he announces this plan:

   "I am working on a long piece and I think it's rather good. I shall use it as an excuse for omitting from my volume the story about Lepré, the opera etc. which you are having copied." (Our italics.)

   I have been able to precisely date this letter in which he announces his decision, it is from 22 September 1894. Thanks to the chronological data it was possible for me to identify the "long piece" in question in the letter. It could be nothing else but the short story called La Mort de Baldassare Silvande, Vicomte de Sylvanie. Because this piece carries the precise date of October 1894. Proust attached sufficient importance to this piece to send it to Robert de Billy and Maria Hahn, Reynaldo Hahn's sister. And he placed it at the very beginning of his collection.

   Nevertheless it didn't seem possible to trace this other story, which Proust was going to remove at the time that Reynaldo Hahn was in the process of having a copy made. I was unable to find any trace of it, either of the manuscript or the proofs, in the Marcel Proust archive of the Bibliothèque Nationale. The absence of any proofs for this story was no surprise since Proust had decided to discard it in September 1894. In fact he had to wait another eighteen months before receiving the proofs of his book, which bear the date of March 1896. Nevertheless, for an author who usually kept even the slightest of his writings with great care, including rough drafts, not to mention the manuscripts and exercise books, his proofs, the letters he received, sometimes even the letters he wrote but did not send, this disappearance couldn't help but seem unusual. And this was one of the reasons why I continued to search for the lost text.

   An unhoped-for for piece of luck led me to take up the trail at the home of the son of one of the author's friends. An enigmatic note turned up in an unpublished letter which Proust sent in 1910 to his friend Robert de Flers. He asked him if by any chance he had a copy of La Vie contemporaine - or at least he thought that was the name of the review. Henri de Rothschild was involved with it, he said, and added "I think it has its offices in the rue Boissy-d'Anglas". But what he said next is more significant:

   "I wrote a foolish short story in it which I need and you would be doing me a great favour if you could send me this copy."

   With a certain disingenuousness Proust failed to provide any details to help his friend find the copy in question: he didn't provide the date or the number of the installment, he didn't even give him the period when it appeared, he didn't even give the title of the story.

   We must not allow ourselves to be deceived by the description of "foolish" which he attributed to this story. If Proust had judged that it was of no interest he would not have made the effort to try to recover it. And if he needed it, as he acknowledged, it is not difficult to guess why. Because we know that in 1910 he was hard at work composing his novel. At this particular moment his wish to see the story again can only mean one thing: he wanted to remember certain elements of the text which he thought he could make use of in his novel. But all these considerations would have remained as merely unverifiable hypotheses had it stopped there. The only way of confirming our hypothesis would be to compare the facts with the text in question. But how to find it?

   In Proust's time there were only two reviews entitled La Vie contemporaine, one of which we can disregard as it dealt exclusively with sociology. The other one, founded by Jules Simon in 1888 under the title of La Vie contemporaine: Revue de famille, absorbed the Revue parisienne in 1894 and became La Vie contemporaine et Revue parisienne réunies. The offices of this publication were not, as Proust had thought, in the rue Boissy-d'Anglas. The offices of this periodical, since its foundation, were at 8 rue de la Chausée-d'Antin. However if one looks through the summaries of La Vie contemporaine we discover articles under the names of several of Marcel Proust's friends. In the first issue of the ninth year of the review we actually find in the 1 February 1896 issue a fantasy-review entitled On ferme..., by Xavier Roux and Robert de Flers, and in the following issue (15 February), Une ascension aux Pyramides by Henri de Rothschild. It was the latter no doubt who had solicited Marcel Proust's collaboration in this review.

   Because in the 1 March 1896 issue we actually find the following title:

L'Indifférent by M. Marcel Proust.

Here, without the slightest possible doubt, is what Proust was alluding to in his letter to Reynaldo Hahn, when he mentioned "the story about Lepré, the opera etc.". We can confirm this because the hero, who is the "indifferent man" of the title, is called Lepré and the intrigue takes place in a box at the Opera.




   It is easy to understand why Proust chose to suppress this story in his book when he had another which could replace it more advantageously. It is not even difficult to understand why he spoke of it in retrospect, many years later, as a "foolish story". The givens of this tale are most banal. The characters are presented in a clumsy and superficial way. The young author doesn't seem to know how to handle the threads of his plot, the outcome cries out as being unbelievable. And yet, if we share his impatience over the obvious faults of this piece, we can also understand quite well why he chose to allow it to appear in La Vie contemporaine, and why, at the moment when he was working on Swann, he wanted to go back to it. Because this story, in many ways, surprisingly heralds much of the material and style of the future work.

   In the meantime, before we tackle these questions, let us see if it is possible to establish the period when Proust wrote L'Indifférent. Two details in the text help us. The description of the heroine seems particularly inspired by the impressions the writer had when he had just seen Comtesse Greffulhe for the first time. A letter which he wrote on the subject to Robert de Montesquiou, the day after this event, has allowed me to date it precisely: the soirée where he saw her took place on the 1st July 1893. Hoping to be given an introduction by Montesquiou, it is to the latter that he confides the emotion he felt when he finally saw her at princesse de Wagram's. These are the terms in which he described comtesse Greffulhe: "Her hair was dressed with Polynesian grace, and mauve orchids hung down to the nape of her neck like those "hats of flowers" M. Renan speaks of." (Our italics.)

   So, significantly, to describe the heroine of his story, Proust is happy to develop the same details:

" With no jewellery, her yellow tulle bodice was covered with cattleyas, and she had attached several cattleyas into her black hair which hung down from this dark tower in pale garlands of light. As cool and pensive as her flowers she brought to mind Pierre Loti and Reynaldo Hahn's Mahénu by the Polynesian charm of her hairdo."

Besides, to describe the young widow called Madeleine, marquise de Gouvres, he calls her "the most pampered woman in Paris". Certainly, in 1893, there was scarcely another great lady in Parisian society to whom this description was more appropriate than comtesse Greffulhe.

   As we see, Proust characterizes the beauty of his heroine after the impression comtesse Greffulhe made on him on 1st July 1893. This suggests, quite plausibly, that he wrote this short story shortly after the soirée in question.

   Note however that as he invokes this "hairdo of Polynesian grace" he seems to be inspired by one of his favourite authors from his youth. In a letter which he wrote to his mother when he was seventeen years old, he describes to her the enchantment which had come over him whilst reading Le Marriage de Loti on the grass in the Bois de Boulogne. Later, when he saw comtesse Greffulhe for the first time, her hairstyle must have brought to his mind the poetic image of the heroine in Le Marriage de Loti. And it was this double image which he wished to evoke when he describes the heroine of his story.

   But if, as we suppose, this story was composed during the course of summer 1893, the second phrase mentioned in the above passage - the one which starts with an Alexandrine - culminates with an anachronism. Because the reference to "Pierre Loti and Reynaldo Hahn's Mahénu" does not correspond at all to the period in question. Mahénu was the name that the librettists substituted for Rarahu, the heroine of Le Marriage de Loti when they adapted the novel under the title of L'Ile du Rêve, idylle polynésienne. The public did not hear the name of Mahénu until March 1898 when L'Ile du Rêve was performed at the Opéra-Comique. It is therefore quite certain that Proust did not know this name in 1893. We know, on the contrary, that he became friendly with Reynaldo Hahn during the following summer and that the young composer had told him then about his hopes of performing L'Ile du Rêve at the Opéra-Comique. In several letters which Proust wrote to him in September 1894 are mentioned the interview which he was going to have on the subject with the director of the Opéra-Comique. The name of Mahénu even appears in a note which Proust sent him in the same month of September 1894. This was precisely the same period when Proust had asked him to have the text of L'Indifférent copied. Before asking this service of him, having the delicacy of feeling which we know him to have had, he must have taken care to retouch the phrase where the Polynesian idyll of Loti is mentioned, in order to substitute the name of Rarahu with that of Mahénu, and adding next to Loti's name that of the composer, his new friend.




   The subject of this short story is, in many ways, essentially the same as that of Un amour de Swann. It is a study of the "crystallization" of love at a great lady's house who, by sheer caprice, suddenly falls in love with a man who she had scarcely paid any attention to until then. What provokes this phenomenon is Lepré's indifference, which Madeleine becomes aware of just at the moment when she learns of the imminent departure of this man on a long voyage. It is then that she realizes she loves him: "... she understood, realizing all that had now been torn away from her, what had taken place in herself". It is the same for Swann the evening he arrives late at the Verdurin's after Odette has already left. If the situation is not the same, it is the same form of anguish which seizes these two characters. When Madeleine is face to face with Lepré she wants to "almost unconsciously as if wishing to apply the coquettish maxim, as in the well known phrase "If I don't love you, you love me"". She fails, however, and it is she who falls victim to it. This will be the same maxim which governs the behaviour of Odette with Swann, the narrator of Temps perdu with the duchess de Guermantes and even with Albertine. It is certainly an "inexplicable inclination" which Proust studies here, like that of Swann for Odette, like that of Saint-Loup for Rachel. It is true to say that Lepré wastes his life. The young author doesn't hesitate to deliver us, rather naïvely, the key to the enigma in this respect. He has "a vice". But what is this vice? It is quite simply that he loves "dishonourable women". The author doesn't give any precision to this description, and we feel that he hardly possessed anything other than fairly vague notions about the type of person he is alluding to. However the heroine manages to discover the explanation for the indifferent attitude which Lepré seems to have towards her. All she has to do is to question her dinner companions to discover "the truth" about it. Certainly this way of presenting a character, of knowing everything about him, is contrary to the method which the author of A la recherche du temps perdu would use.

   In spite of that, even if the young Proust does not yet know how to convince us, if he does not want to leave anything in shadow, if he does not include the part that mystery plays in life, he has, nevertheless, already found some of the fundamental ideas of his theory of love, such as he understands it. If he manages his characters badly, he expresses certain principles of human behaviour which he has observed, and which we will find again later in Temps perdu. In this vein, he says this about Madeleine's love: "The reasons for her love were in her, and if they were also partly in him it wasn't because of his intellectual superiority nor his physical superiority". Proust conceives the basis for the narrator's love for Albertine in the same way. And the conclusion which he gives here is already the one he will take up later on the fatality of attraction: " it was precisely because she loved only one face, only one smile, only one bearing, which were not as attractive to her as others', and not because his face, his smile, his bearing were more attractive than others', that she loved him."

   All this merits our attention. But what strikes us more than anything else in this story is not the subject, nor even the theories of love which Proust is developing here more or less according to the same principles which he will use in his later work; what proclaims the touch of the master is the role which he gives to flowers and memories of art. The attention which he lends to the woman's surroundings is never less than necessary here. The brief description of Madeleine's toilet has a significance which is most arresting. It is her friend who draws it to our attention: - "How she loves flowers, cried Mme Lawrence looking at her bodice." And the author makes the ironic observation:

"Indeed she did love them, in the vulgar sense that she knew how beautiful they were, and how much they made her appear beautiful. She loved their beauty, their gaiety, their sadness too, but externally like one of the attitudes of their beauty. When they were no longer fresh she discarded them like an old dress."

   Mme Lawrence's remarks and the commentary which accompanies it prepare us very effectively for what comes next. Because as soon as Madeleine realizes that she is in love with Lepré, the change which she undergoes is immediately reflected in her new attitude to flowers. When she starts to think that Lepré might leave before he has had time to fall in love with her, this is how she reacts:

"Grief stricken, she hung her head and her gaze fell on the most languishing of the wilted flowers on her bodice, which beneath their withered eyelids seemed ready to weep."

And the author adds: "The thought of the little that was left of her dream [...] seemed to her to be like the sadness of these flowers which, before they died, languished over the heart that they had felt beating with her first love, her first humiliation and her first sorrow." In this way the withered flowers on her bodice symbolize the sadness of a love without hope. Madeleine associates them with her own distress, she finds the same sadness in them; the author goes so far as to attribute to them their languishing looks, their withered eyelids which seemed ready to weep. We see moreover that this languishing sadness has an accordance with paintings by Watteau, the artist from whom Proust seems to have borrowed the title of this story.

   The next day, Madeleine, under the effects of her love, no longer wants any other flowers in her bedroom, "which is usually full and reverberating with the glory of fresh roses". It is Mme Lawrence, once again, who underlines the change that has taken place at her friend's noticing the dead cattleyas "stripped of beauty to eyes that are without love". And when Madeleine's friend expresses her astonishment at seeing the withered flowers, she wants to reply: "It seems to me that it is only today that I have come to love them."

   This method of noting the effects of love on the heroine by her attitude towards flowers is no mean feat for a twenty two year old author. All the same Proust did not judge this episode good enough to use in his novel. On the other hand he did use the association of flowers with the theme of love. It is used in the depiction of the narrator's love for Gilberte, who the narrator notices for the first time framed in a delightful setting of flowers in the park at Tansonville. Later, when he sees Saint-Loup's mistress for the first time, the scene is set by an emotional description of blossoming fruit trees (moreover the narrator conceals his emotions when he recognizes his friend's mistress as "Rachel when from the Lord", by pretending to be moved by the beauty of the pear trees and cherry trees). But more than anything else it is orchids which Proust is to take up again in his novel. And what strikes us particularly is to see the name "cattleya" appearing already, to designate the type of orchids which will come to figure at the required moment in certain important scenes.

   For Odette it is orchids, especially cattleyas, which along with chrysanthemums are her favourite flowers, "because they have the great advantage of not looking like flowers, but seem to be made of silk or satin". And on the evening when Swann is searching for her through the boulevards, when he finally bumps into her in the darkness, she is carrying a bouquet of cattleyas, and wearing the same orchids in her hair attached to an aigrette of swan's feathers. So it is when he is rearranging Odette's cattleyas that he kisses her for the first time, and the same evening he finishes up by "possessing" her.

   There are more orchids - the duchesse de Guermantes's bush, waiting for the insect to pollinate it - what the narrator observes in the hotel courtyard, the day he is lying in wait for the duchesse's arrival, and what he sees of the union between Charlus and Jupien, the pollination of the plant serving as a symbol of this other union.

   Another detail which Proust makes use of later, is to use a work of art, a portrait which resembles the loved one. Madeleine observes that Lepré has "the delicate and noble figure of a Louis XIII", she brings to mind other portraits from this period which she associates with her love and which give this love a new existence by allowing it to enter into the system of her artistic taste. She has brought from Amsterdam a portrait of a young man who resembles him. We see clearly that much of this must have provided inspiration for Swann. But in this short story he has merely sketched the idea, the theory, in a fairly abstract fashion. In Un amour de Swann the portrait of Zephora by Botticelli plays a much more important role. Because when Swann first meets Odette she is not the type of woman whose beauty inspires him, he is not really attracted to her. But the resemblance between Odette and Botticelli's portrait lends her a beauty which makes her more precious to Swann. In this way he finds a justification for the pleasure he feels on seeing Odette in his own cultural aesthetic. But the writer will go on to find the means to develop this as a way of explaining how Odette is transformed in Swann's eyes, indifferent to her until she becomes not only desirable but indispensable. What interests us, what is so moving, is to see that the root of this idea was conceived by Proust at the age of about twenty two.

   There is another passage in this short story which does not appear in the novel but which, for other reasons, merits out attention. It is the moment where the announcement by Mme Lawrence that Lepré is about to leave for a long voyage unleashes Madeleine's love for him. The young writer wanted to express this emotion, this nervous crisis through an analogy. What he found to give it such force is the description of his first asthma attack which he suffered at the age of nine. It is the only example, to my knowledge, where the author has provided such a description:

"A child who has been breathing since his birth without thinking about it, does not realize how essential to his life is the air which gently swells his breast and which he never even notices. How he suffocates in an attack of fever, during a convulsion. With all the desperate effort of his being, it almost for his life that he struggles, it is for the lost tranquillity which he can only regain with the air which he never dreamed he could be separated from." At that moment Madeleine looks at her friend with a forlorn and gentle dejection "without wanting anything more from her than does the asthma which chokes the poor suffering invalid who, with tear filled eyes smiles at those who pity him without being able to help him".

   This episode provides us with a unique insight, because as far as we know Proust never expressed his feelings any where else about this event which transformed his life.

   There we have it, this short story about Lepré, truly rediscovered. As we have seen, its author intended to remove it from Les Plaisirs et les Jours in order to replace it with another one. In the latter he tried to express certain ideas about death, about jealousy which in some ways prefigure some elements of Temps perdu. But the sacrifice of the first one was not total: the young author ended up by having it published shortly before the appearance of his book, in a review. And there, in La Vie contemporaine, where it seemed to have been hardly noticed at the time, it remained sunk in total oblivion which lasted more than three quarters of a century. The author was alone in not forgetting about it. And when he was working on his great novel, many years later, he wanted to see it again. Did he succeed in finding it again? Nobody can say for sure, even though it leads us to think that the author made use of it in Un amour de Swann. But what we do know is why he wanted to see it. Because he did use some of the same details which appear in L'Indifférent, some of the same effects, some of the same ideas in his future novel. This short story, lost and found, can now take its place beside his other youthful works where we begin to see in its embryonic state the genius of Marcel Proust.


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